Shabbat Shalom! Here are some fun old Yiddishisms for you I learned from The Five Books of Miriam:
The cat likes fish, but doesn’t want to get her paws wet.
The way you look at someone, so that person appears to you.
The smoothest way is full of stones.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shelach-Lecha, we learn of 12 Spies that Moses sends into the Promised Land to scope out how conquerable the land is, or if it is indeed what God has promised. They come back with a cluster of grapes so large they have to carry it on a pole between two men and tell the Israelite horde that indeed the land is plentiful, but the people who dwell in it are large enough to match these giant grapes. Those living in the land are described as giants, and it is hinted at that the Israelite spies possibly even see these giants as descended from angels. They have no faith in their abilities to conquer the land from these people. Rashi says that when the spies say, “We cannot attack that people for it is stronger than we”, they are even including God’s might in that “we”. It is not simply a lack of faith in God’s support for them that leads them to question their abilities, but that even God is not strong enough to overcome these semigod giants.
I think Rashi’s view, and the Bubbe-isms, are the common way to view this story. These are a faithless, lazy, incessantly whining people. More than once they suggest things were actually better in Egypt. They demand meat fall from heaven for them, even after all their basic needs are being taken care of. When thing get hard, they want to just give up.
However, it is important to remember that these are a people who have lived in slavery, and are descended from several generations of enslaved people. Where was God’s might during those 200 years under Egyptian hardship? Despite the miracles these people have seen with their own eyes, they are still carrying on their souls the 200 years of oppression and tragedy. When the people who are born in freedom merit to enter the Promised Land, we still see some of the vestiges of this faithlessness that God tried to stamp out by causing the generation of slaves to die in the wilderness. This week’s Haftarah comes from the Book of Joshua, and we see Joshua also sends spies into Jericho to scope out the best way to conquer the walled city. Later in the book, as the Israelites make their way from city to city conquering land and asserting their dominance, they are instructed to never take any booty from the cities they conquer. The plan is simply to establish that the land belongs to them and that the Israelites will be able to settle where God tells them to, so there is no need to cause excess harm to the people living in the land. According to the plan, God will aid their fight and ensure their prosperity. Yet, in one narrative in the Book of Joshua, someone steals some money from one of the cities, and again the whole community suffers the wrath of God. Time has passed, and they are ostensibly past the fear and faithlessness of their fathers born in slavery, but it’s clear that some Israelites still have trouble believing that they will always have the years of plenty God has promised.
The study of intergenerational trauma has stemmed from the study of Holocaust survivors and their families, so these behavior patterns might be familiar to us as Jews. The study has expanded and this sort of trauma is known now to occur in many types of communities, such as the Siberian Yupik peoples of Alaska, who were the focus of this week’s episode of Code Switch. The good news is, we don’t have to be stuck in these patterns. Despite their fear and faithlessness, God never gives up on the Israelites in the stories we read this week, and our people eventually prevail. Even as history has marched forward and other tragedies have befallen modern Jews, we continue to survive and thrive. Though I know many still carry the scars of their parents and grandparents, this field of study has opened up more awareness of how to break these cycles, learn about our histories in healthier ways, and focus on resilience and rebuilding. The idea that someone can inherit trauma may sound depressing, but this field of study can help turn us into an entire people of Calebs and Joshuas, a people with faith and hope, courage and strength, and a more acute sense of real dangers versus perceived ones. May you find your own faith, hope, courage, strength, and wisdom to help lead the Jewish people forward. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.